Ali Akbar Khan Plucks His Last String

Echoes remembers Ali Akbar Khan (April 14,1922-June 19, 2009)

Signature Series, Vol. 4 Ali Akbar Khan is one of the only Indian musicians whose name is spoken in the same breathe as Ravi Shankar.  He plays the Indian stringed instrument called the sarod and since his American debut in 1955 playing duets with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, he’s been a leading proponent of Indian classical music in the west.  If you were on the west coast and beat a tabla or plucked a sitar, you probably passed through the Ali Akbar College of Music.

We talked with Khansab in 1994 when he’d just released an album of Westernized raga melodies called Journey.

Ragas I remember Khansab seated in the music room of his tiny Marin County bungalow. The walls were covered with Indian murals, tanpuras and icons.  A stack of shelves held several of his sarods, a stringed Indian instrument that sounds like a sitar with resonant strings but with a fretless fingerboard.  On one wall hung his first miniature sarod, which his father made from an old violin. He was a short, portly man, whose speech was barely intelligible beneath his gruff, rumbling tone and Indian accent.  He said he learned many of his ragas from his father.

“There are 25,000 ragas, melodies,” grumbled Khansab.  “You have to listen to learn in each other, you must learn at least 500 for your completion.  And by practicing, by thinking this, then you know it, you can feel it and it’s like a love.  When a child talks to its mother, mother talks to her child.  This comes out from their heart.  They never compose beforehand.  So that kind of attitude you need for real music.”

Whether playing with classical violinists or cross-over music, Ali Akbar Khan insisted that he never sacrificed the depth and meaning of Indian music.

“That meaning is very difficult to explain,” he revealed.  “I only know that through music you can reach to God.  And it’s such a wonderful thing which can bring peace to all of the place.  The people listen, the people they perform and it’s a very, very wonderful things.  But I am telling you each note can explain many things you can’t speak or write.”

Ali Akbar Khan passed today, June 19, 2009 at the age of 87.  With Ali Akbar Khan joining tabla master Alla Rahka, that leaves Ravi Shankar as the last of the triumvirate that brought Indian music to the west.  From Morgan Doctor to Jai Uttal, Matthew Montfort to Ravi Shankar, there is rarely a musician I’ve spoken to who hasn’t been touched by his music.

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

  3 comments for “Ali Akbar Khan Plucks His Last String

  1. “a stringed Indian instrument that sounds like a sitar without the resonant strings.”

    It sounds more like a fretless banjo that can bend notes than a sitar (thanks to the goatskin diaphragm) and it does have 15 sympathetic strings, plus 6 rhythm strings and 4 melody strings — 25 total.

    Just keepin’ ya honest, John;-)

  2. I liked your post, but I did notice one very minor typo: it’s spelled “triumvirate”, not “triumvarate”.

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